The working poor have found a champion in a Republican state House leader.
Rep. Pete Kott has introduced a bill to boost the minimum wage from $5.65 to $6.40 next year and to $6.90 in 2003. Kott said he introduced the measure at the urging of some of his constituents in Eagle River who are "working for pennies."
"I think it will help out the working poor while having very little impact on the working rich or the business community," said Kott, a Republican.
Kott offered the bill days after Gov. Tony Knowles told lawmakers in his State of the State speech that Alaska's minimum wage is the lowest on the West Coast. Knowles, a Democrat, urged lawmakers to raise it to $6.40 an hour.
Kott's bill goes even further, and it might find some legs this session. Kott chairs the powerful Rules Committee, which makes him one of the most influential Republicans in the House majority.
"I'm very encouraged the Rules chair has taken the lead on it," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat. "I'm more optimistic of moving the legislation through."
The change would likely affect few people in Juneau. The idea of raising the minimum wage got little reaction from most employers because many already pay more than the $5.65 an hour required by state law.
Taku Smokeries pays entry-level seafood processors $7 an hour, more than a dollar above minimum wage. A spokesman said the company has to pay extra to attract employees because of a tight labor market and that Kott's bill probably wouldn't have much of an impact.
The owner of two local McDonald's restaurants said he has to offer at least $7.50 an hour to draw workers. "In the years I've owned the restaurants since 1989, I don't believe we've ever looked at the minimum wage as being a factor," said owner Mike White, who emphasized he had not read the bill.
Rob Boley of Fred Meyer said the retail store would not be affected because "we already pay our entry level personnel more than the proposed minimum wage for next year."
Jack Tripp, owner of Dockside Jewelers, said he pays at least $8 an hour, even to high school students with no experience.
State labor economists had little data on minimum wage jobs. But a statewide survey about two years ago showed an estimated 5.5 percent of workers earned between $5.65 and $6.74, said Brynn Keith, state labor economist. Keith said the information was gathered after the tourism season, so it might underestimate the number of low-wage workers, who mostly work in restaurants and bars.
Tabby's Restaurant in the Mendenhall Valley pays its entry-level wait staff $6 an hour, slightly above minimum wage, even though some employees earn up to $100 a day in tips, said Bob Harris, who owns the diner with his wife. Although Kott's bill would force Harris to increase wages to $6.40 next year, he wouldn't mind.
"I'd rather they raised it," Harris said. "I think the minimum wage is too low."
The Prospector Hotel's Bridgette Coke was the only person contacted by the Empire who voiced any concern. Coke runs the hotel's T.K. Maguire's restaurant, which employs 12 food servers plus bartenders. Coke said starting wages for wait staff are $6 an hour, and pay increases to $6.90 after six months.
"It would definitely have an impact on payroll for everyone to be starting" at $6.40 next year and $6.90 in 2003, Coke said.
Minimum wage may go even higher than that. Kott said he is considering an amendment to the bill to raise the minimum wage to $7.15 by 2003. He also might change the measure so wages automatically go up with inflation - an idea pushed by the governor.
Although the Alaska Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on whether the minimum wage should grow, president Pam La Bolle said she doubts members would support tying wages to inflation.
"Inflation might not tell or reflect what was really happening ... at any point in time in the Alaska job market," La Bolle said. Employers "might end up having to pay more than what the job marketplace would support."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.